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How Housing Can Help Heal

By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Manager


Beyond therapy and medication, there are an array of mental health services and supports that play a significant role in helping individuals living with mental illness on the road to recovery. These services can provide feelings of independence and achievement.

“They have helped me reach my goals and live a good life,” Matthew Temple says when asked about PRS, Inc. Located in Fairfax, Va., PRS, Inc. provides skills training and supports, including housing, to individuals living with mental illness, substance use disorders, mild intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorders. Temple, who lives with schizophrenia, has used their supported housing services since 2003. “When my therapist first suggested it, I was excited about the idea of moving out of the hospital and living on my own.”

Supported housing options are offered on a continuum. At one end of the spectrum there is supervised group housing, where 24-hour supervision is provided. There is assistance with medication, assistance with paying bills and managing money, and food and meals are provided daily. Day programs are also provided to help residents learn about recovery and job skills.

As housing options move along the continuum, they offer greater independence. In partially supervised group housing there is only minimal supervision and assistance (staff is not available 24 hours a day). In supportive housing, residents are left alone for large amounts of time and live fairly independently.

Once an individual becomes fully independent, rental housing is a possibility. When searching for a rental property, individuals living with mental illness can use subsidized or independent funds to help pay for rent. Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937 provides low-income individuals and families rental housing assistance.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Section 811 Supportive Housing for Persons with Disabilities program is a critical piece of legislation that helps individuals with significant and long-term disabilities, such as mental illness, live independently in their communities by offering supportive housing for very low- and extremely low-income adults with disabilities. The implementation of the Frank Melville Supportive Housing Investment Act of 2010 reformed Section 811, and provided the opportunity to develop thousands to new permanent supportive housing units across the country and strengthened relationships between state housing and health and human service agencies.

Ultimately, once an individual is able to live completely independent, there is the goal of home ownership.

Regardless of the housing option chosen it needs to be appropriate and effective. In order for it to do that, it must meet four criteria:

  • Housing must be affordable. Ideally, residents should not need to pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing costs. When individuals are required to pay a greater percentage, other critical needs, such as food, clothing and health care often have to be compromised.
  • The housing option also has to provide the appropriate level of independence. For Temple, independence meant the ability to choose his own housing. Some programs were too far away from his family, while others didn’t have living arrangements that fit the lifestyle he wanted. But once he found a program that fit, it’s helped him greatly.
  • “My roommates are my friends, and I like the staff,” Temple says. “The staff helped me learn to manage my medication, take me to my appointments and teach me to manage every day responsibilities.”

    Independence also refers to the amount of services provided (i.e., supervised group housing vs. supportive housing).

  • The housing unit selected must also meet accessibility needs, including access to community amenities such as supermarkets, public transportation and healthcare providers, as well as needs for physical disabilities.
  • Lastly, when an individual chooses to rent, he or she must not be discriminated against. The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in rental housing because of a disability. It also requires the landlord make “reasonable accommodations” to people living with mental illness based on their disability.

While these four criteria are important for housing to be appropriate and effective, the type of housing selected must ultimately fit the needs of the individual.

“Choose wisely,” Temple advises. “Check out the area and meet the staff and roommates. Make sure it’s a good fit. When you find a program it can give you a stable environment and help you succeed.”

Lack of safe and affordable housing is one of the most significant barriers to recovery for people living with mental illness. Without options, individuals living with mental illness too often find themselves in homeless shelters, hospitals, emergency rooms and jails and prisons. But when a community has housing that meets the needs of individuals living with mental illness, it can have long lasting positive effects. For Matthew Temple and others, it can help achieve goals, gain independence and move along the road of recovery.

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